Talking Shop with David Erlbacher, founder, Erlbacher Gear and Machine Works

Monday, April 19, 2010

David "Pee Wee" Erlbacher, 71, founder of Erlbacher Gear and Machine Works Inc., could have retired by now. Although he's turned over his business to his daughters, but he still puts in 50-hour work weeks at the company's production facility on Good Hope Street. He also serves as president of Alliance Bancshares Inc., the holding company for Alliance Bank, which has branches in Cape Girardeau, Sikeston, Mo., and Oran, Mo.

Q: How did you get into the business of making gears?

A: We've been in the machine shop business for five generations. My great-great-great-granddad was a gunsmith, worked with steel and had cattle. They came in 1865 from Austria and landed in New Orleans. They traveled up the Mississippi River, when they got up here the ground laid just like the ground where they came from. They jumped off the boat and stayed in New Wells, Mo. We have five daughters, the youngest one, Grayson, now owns it and runs it and it's her business. Our daughter Jamie Mayfield is the bookkeeper.

David "Pee Wee" Erlbacher is the founder of Erlbacher Gear and Machine Works in Cape Girardeau. (Fred Lynch)

Q: Who are your company's core customers?

A: Erlbacher Gear was established in 1955 as a company to manufacture gears and machine parts. We make parts for people all over the world. Coal mining, oil fields, underwater ocean inspection equipment. We do a little aircraft, a lot of agriculture. We've worked a lot with people who need parts to make railroad cars and even tow boats. A lot of our business has gone overseas in the last 10 years.

Q: Growing up in the family business, did you ever consider a different career path?

A: I've tried a few other things and they just weren't real successful. I'm not saying we went broke, but we almost went broke.

Q: Is there anything you make at Erlbacher Gear the might surprise people?

A: We're working on remanufacturing Gearhart rotary sock-knitting machines. They were patented in about 1870. They're antiques and they're collectible, but most of them don't work anymore. You can't get replacement parts for them. We're rebuilding them from ground zero. In the first World War the Red Cross owned 150,000 sock-knitting machines. They were operated by a hand crank and were used as therapy for people in the hospitals. That's how the soldiers got their socks made even into early World War II. The last year they were produced was 1925. You can knit a pair of socks in an hour if you're good at it. We'll have machines completed within about 90 days. We'll sell them on the Internet and through the knitting circles.

Q: Tell me about your role as the president of Alliance Bancshares Inc.

A: We put the stockholders together and started Alliance Bank. I was on the [now Region[']s] bank board when it was sold to Union Planters. Several of us that were on the board didn't want to sell the bank, so we started another bank. When we got in the banking business all the big banks were buying up the little banks. It was an ideal time to get into it.

Q: The banking industry has received a lot of criticism recently. What's your take?

A: Banks are having a difficult time right now due to the economy and changing regulations and the different outlook that bank examiners have had toward all banks, including community banks. Alliance Bank just happened to have a lot of capital so we're in real good shape. We're moving forward and doing the best we can with the conditions of the economy.

Q: What the secret to staying so active at age 71?

A: Good health. Every morning me and my wife and my little dog take a three- or four-mile walk. That's a real good thing to get you started in the morning. Our whole family is energetic and enterprising. We build things and make things. It's all we've done for five generations and it's still going that-a-way.

Q: You've recently taken up beekeeping. How did you get interested in that?

A: Bees are active. They're living creatures that are always on the move and they work hard. It's a project my two daughters and sons-in-law and their families are doing as a family project. We've got 46 hives at present within a 5 mile radius of Cape. We're trying to get up to 600 or 700, maybe 1,000. A bee colony produces from 80 to 100 pounds of honey every year. We'll sell it to local people and the excess will go into commercial sales.

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